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    The Great Renegotiation

    How the vacation rental management industry can recruit and retain employees.

    The reports and realities of the “Great Resignation” have been grim for employers. It seems harder than ever to find and keep good talent, as millions of people have quit their jobs. Few industries have suffered more than the hospitality industry, of which the vacation rental property industry is a part. Alongside retail, hospitality has had the highest rate of employees who quit since November 2020, according to the US Chamber of Commerce, a rate that has been consistently above 4.5 percent. And while the number of hospitality jobs increased from 112,000 to 431,000 in March, employment is down 8.7 percent since February of 2020.

    But Sue Jones feels excited by the state of human resources (HR) in vacation rentals, despite all the gloom and doom. She likes to think of this period as more of a “Great Renegotiation” in the vacation rental property industry. “It’s an employee’s market right now,” says Jones, member VRMA’s Board of Directors and owner of HR4VR, an HR consulting company that works within the vacation rental industry. “That’s where I think this industry is having a real shift. The shifts we’re seeing now are shifts in the way this industry thinks.”

    These shifts could lead to wins for vacation rental managers. One big shift, for example, is that more people now work remotely. Remote work wasn’t as well accepted before the pandemic but became commonplace out of necessity—and it will remain a way of working for the foreseeable future. Housekeepers and maintenance workers can’t work from home, of course, but those in marketing, management, and customer service can work remotely if their companies allow them. Remote work can open recruitment across the entire world, Jones says.

    Another big shift is that hiring a direct workforce has become difficult. In the past, Jones says vacation rental companies would hire directly or work with a contracting or staffing agency. Now most vacation rental managers are working with a combination of these tactics, including many who work with subcontractors to find and hire their workforce from the outside. Willingness to try new hiring tactics could be another big win.

    At the VRMA Spring Forum, Jones led a roundtable session on recruiting to talk about key HR trends across the industry. Jones says there are many new recruitment and retention practices companies can try, but she was glad to see that other professionals understood they must go beyond compensation.

    These days, more than ever, Jones says that recruitment and retention are about communicating, engaging, and appealing to employees on a human level. Employees want to feel respected, well compensated, and engaged where they work. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that 63 percent of workers left their jobs because of low pay, another 63 percent said they left because there weren’t opportunities for advancement, and 57 percent said they left because they felt disrespected at work. All of these can be seen as issues of communication and engagement. Amid tough times for recruitment and retention, vacation rental managers have a big advantage: size. Most vacation rental management companies are smaller, and with fewer employees, and thus can more swiftly implement changes in how they recruit, retain, and engage with employees than a large hotel chain would be able to. Vacation rental managers can nimbly manage the moment, try new tactics, and create a winning culture.

    Here are some tips for how vacation rental companies can recruit, retain, and engage with talented employees.

    Find Student Employees on J-1 Visas

    Seabrook, Washington, a planned community along the coast, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Seattle. Many of Seabrook’s 500 homes are used as vacation property rentals, as the coastal location draws people from across the state. But the location, arguably Seabrook’s biggest selling point, is likely also the reason why it’s often hard to recruit and retain talented employees. Seabrook has even hired a van service to ensure that transportation isn’t an issue for employees, who often have a 30- to 60-minute commute.

    Nadine Huck works as guest services manager at Seabrook Hospitality. While her own guest services team has been well staffed, it’s been much harder to find and keep staff on the housekeeping and maintenance teams. For vacation rentals, one team struggling often means that other teams struggle. That made last year a tough year for Huck and others at Seabrook.

    “It was all-hands-on-deck,” Huck says. “We all worked together and got through the summer. But that’s why this year, we had to do something to supplement our staff. We just can’t hire enough people in the area.” This summer, the busiest season at Seabrook, Huck and her team will welcome student workers from other countries who will work at Seabrook on a J-1 visas. Also known as the exchange visitor visa, J-1 visas allow students to visit and work in the US for 18 months. Students on these visas are provided with cultural experiences—think national parks and baseball games, in Seabrook’s case—and will be offered dorm-style housing for rent.

    This practice of hiring students on visas is more common in resorts and skiing, which is how Huck heard about it—from an executive housekeeper who worked with a group of J-1 visa students at a resort in Minnesota. To hire the students, Huck worked with Smaller Earth, which connects students with companies across the world. Smaller Earth listed interview slots for international students with Seabrook, and the slots filled up almost instantly. In a day, Huck performed eight hours of Zoom interviews back-to-back, hiring 46 students by the end. The students—the majority of whom will come from Mexico City—aren’t necessarily studying hospitality, Huck says. Some are, but others are studying topics like civil engineering. Huck plans on the influx of help across Seabrook being a huge relief for her staff in housekeeping, maintenance, and even in retail shops across Seabrook.

    “Our expectations are really that it’s going to make turning over the properties a more seamless process and lighten the workload for everyone,” Huck says. Huck’s main piece of advice for anyone curious about hiring J-1 visa students? Find a partner who will help set up the interviews and screen students in advance. Her day of long interviews was long, but it would have been a much longer process without Smaller Earth.

    Huck is looking forward to a less-crazed workload this summer, but she’s also excited for the people of different cultures coming to Seabrook. “It’s going to be really cool to have a different vibrancy of different cultures,” Huck says. “I’m excited for our guests to have that experience, too.”

    Hire a Remote Work Team

    Every so often, Emily Read will host co-workers for a dinner at her home. Many are like family now, though she still finds herself explaining Texan slang to them. Read is chief operations officer at Cozi Vacation Rental, which is headquartered in Fredericksburg, Texas, with 112 different markets across Texas. But some of the co-workers she’ll host are from Honduras, where they work as part of a remote team for Cozi. The 100- person remote team works sales and guest services for Cozi. A couple times per year, members of the team will fly to Texas for training and team bonding—US-based Cozi employees will also take the time to fly to Honduras to meet with the team there.

    The Honduran team was hired two years ago by Cozi’s chief executive officer, before Read was hired. This was before the recruiting and retention shortage, Read says, but the team continues to be cost-effective for Cozi and lucrative for the Honduran employees. “We’re able to pay about three times the average for these very talented individuals,” Read says. “And it’s cost effective for us because we don’t have to pay them as much as we would pay here locally. But, for them, they’re getting more that they could get anywhere else. Our customer service manager in Honduras, for example, is a licensed pharmacist. She makes more money being a manager for us than she would as a pharmacist.”

    Read could see why hiring a remote team would be attractive for vacation rental companies. She suggests learning to ask the right questions when hiring. For example, what skills are important for employees to have, and what skills can be trained? What kind of people do you want to be working with? And managers must be up for the challenge of holding remote teams accountable, just as they would an on-site workforce. Just because a team is hundreds, even thousands, of miles away doesn’t mean that it will manage itself.

    “We have a CRM [customer relationship manager] that tracks their text messages, phone calls, emails, and outbound calls as an accountability measure,” Read says. “We also have leadership based in Honduras so that they can get together as a team and physically see someone. They’re spread out across the country, sometimes three hours apart, but we encourage them to get together sometimes. For us, it’s essential to have a member of our leadership team there. We hired for a customer service agent in Honduras, and as our company and needs grew, we were able to promote her to that position.”

    To make this remote force work especially well, Read suggests having a great company culture. For Cozi, this means hosting virtual events where all employees can get on a video conference and see each other for celebrations and holidays, including Honduran holidays. In Cozi’s case, it also means flying members of the remote team to the US, flying there to meet them, consistently communicating, and building an atmosphere of teamwork. “We make sure that we do things together,” Read says. “You have to be intentional about your culture, whether you have a remote workforce or not. If you are not intentionally pursuing positive culture and setting those expectations, it will not happen.”

    A Healthy Culture

    A healthy workplace culture is the No. 1 trait Jones believes employees look for in a potential employer. “That’s what drove some of the hospitality workers out—they just didn’t have a career path or a place to go,” Jones says. “They’re really looking for a place that has a healthy workplace culture, and that’s been a shift.” There’s no single move toward ensuring the culture is good. The fight for a good culture takes place on many fronts, and—as Read says—it must be intentional.

    Communication and engagement may be the most important factors, Jones says, as most employees don’t feel like they get enough from their workplaces. This could be as simple as opening a single channel for communication via a platform like Slack or Facebook. But it also means that mangers have to be better at noticing how employees are doing—they must speak with employees as people, empathize with them, and be flexible when employees have real-life problems. Jones suggests training managers for these essential communication skills.

     “There’s been a whole shift in training managers,” Jones says. “It’s moved from managing the tasks to managing the employees’ well-being. The companies that are flying ahead understand the value of the managers being strong leaders and developers.”

    Planning and Values

    A good culture can’t exist without good executives. Any company that is looking for ways to recruit and retain employees should first be looking at their own values and management style, Jones says, as well as their own employee handbook. Handbooks are often where company values and expectations are expressed.

    Examining your executive team means looking in the mirror, but also looking at what management practices are being used. For example, is there a succession plan in place, both for executives and employees? A succession plan can be a great way to communicate to employees that there is a path forward within the company. Huck agrees, saying that a succession plan gives employees the ability to see how they can perform their job better, or even see the other career paths within the company.

    “One client I have came up with seven different levels for maintenance so that they could people their path,” Jones says. “Maybe you’re hired as a landscape leaf blower, but then you can grow into a full-fledged maintenance worker with different levels of education, training, and tenure. It’s showing somebody that even though you’re starting here at the bottom, here’s where you could be in two years.”

    Well-Explained Compensation

    Compensation ties directly into a healthy culture, as the Pew Research Center survey showed. Money and benefits packages—insurance, reimbursement, 401k matching—are often the reasons why employees come and go. But perhaps as important is helping employees understand the value of their compensation package, Jones says. Many companies are now creating compensation statements that highlight the value of health insurance, paid time off, and other perks.

    “That’s really valuable, because it shows people that in addition to their $50,000 salary, they have another $30,000 in benefits,” Jones says. “It’s a retention tool, and it also becomes a recruitment tool when you’re trying to hire someone. You can say, ‘Here’s what our total compensation might look like after 12 months.’ It’s a nice way to compare and contrast, and that’s great for engagement.”

    For many companies, improving compensation may be as simple as offering better compensation. This might not be easy, but it’s a reality of a period when inflation is rising. At Seabrook, for example, Huck says that they made a $750,000 investment into employee compensation a year ago, giving employees raises and hiring bonuses. This has helped keep important talent in place.

    Planning for the Moment and the Future

    Jones isn’t sure when this tough moment in recruiting and retention will end. Inflation is still rising, and it’s still an employee’s market. The uncertainty of the moment makes it essential for vacation rental companies to be transparent in compensation, communication, and succession. Transparency of these renegotiations can only help with recruitment and retention.

    If a company is having a hard time recruiting and retaining maintenance workers, for example, Jones says the company could target that talent pool by paying for tools. If a long commute would be an issue, Jones says that companies could start paying for mileage and commute times. Or, like Huck did in Seabrook, a company could hire a van service to bring employees to work in the morning. These benefits double as recruitment tools that should be espoused and marketed to potential employees. One easy win for companies, according to Jones, would be to hire someone focused entirely on recruitment. This wouldn’t be someone who makes the final decisions on who is hired, but someone who posts ads, responds to applicants, and ensures that there’s a steady stream of good applicants being seen.

    “If companies were to have one person who’s managing the flow, getting people in the pipeline, making sure they have the qualifications, and getting meetings scheduled, that would go a long way,” Jones says. Right now, most departments have someone in charge of recruiting and hiring. An employee who can essentially serve as a logistics manager for new hires could make the hiring process much easier.

    Jones says that companies should also consider recruiting into the future by high schools and trade schools. Younger people may not know that the hospitality industry—and certainly the vacation rental industry—can be a great path forward in their career. In the end, Jones, Huck, and Read all put culture above all else. With a good culture, recruiting and retention becomes easier—and building a good culture isn’t hard, either.

    Read says that it’s as simple as showing appreciation and validation. “As humans, we’re pack animals,” Read says. “You just have to find what makes them feel valued.” At Cozi, this means messaging each other over Slack, always honoring time off, and even niceties as simple as saying “please” and “thank you.” “That doesn’t mean I expect them to stick around forever, working day and night for me,” Read says. “It just means I want to mirror to them what they have already given to us. When you hear people say that it all starts and ends with leadership, that’s true. But words are cheap.  Acting like a leader and treating people well builds culture."

     Hal Conick is a Chicago-based writer.

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